As one fan posted on the Bob Dylan obsessives board Expecting Rain last week, “Picked it up in town today. First song playing. God damn.”
The “it” he was referring to is Dylan’s 36th studio album Shadows in the Night, released today. The “God damn”? Well, I expect that will be the reaction of most fans to the album.
From the quiet hum of the amps and light, crystal clear guitar intro that heralds the first song, the 1951 standard “I’m A Fool to Want You,” one of Sinatra’s few credits as a co-writer, you somehow know you’re in for a treat. There’s instantly an intensity here that’s missing from most modern albums. Then Dylan starts to sing.
For diehard fans, you’ll be on the edge of your seats. There’ll be goosebumps. And for anyone who has seen Dylan over the years and has been put off by what they see as his diminished voice or seemingly tossed-off performances of his own songs, you’re in for a treat. Not only does Dylan’s voice sound better than ever, his performances on Shadows in the Night are, quite simply, riveting. Dylan is truly committed to the material, and has an undeniable command of it. Packing 73 years of living, much of it on the road, and his experience as our greatest living songwriter into these grooves, Dylan is on fire.
There have been a lot of standards albums from Dylan’s contemporaries in recent years. While most have fared well commercially, artistically they’ve been spotty, to say the least. Fittingly, in the run-up to the release of Shadows in the Night, Dylan’s fans, as they always do, wondered what he was up to. “Dylan could knock out a serviceable slew of covers in his sleep,” one fan posted on a discussion board. Others -- especially in the press -- obsessed over the connection between Sinatra and Dylan.
In fact, the two have a long, if removed, history. Of course Bob Dylan came of age when Frank Sinatra was a preeminent American institution, undoubtedly listening to him on the radio as a kid in Hibbing, Minnesota. But it goes deeper than that. “I could hear everything in his voice—death, God, the universe—everything,” Dylan famously wrote of Sinatra in his autobiography. He performed at Sinatra’s 80th birthday party in 1995, delivering a bare, acoustic “Restless Farewell,” from his 1964 album The Times The Are a-Changin’, requested by Sinatra himself.
And when Sinatra died, Dylan, who rarely comments—or is at least brief, if sometimes heartfelt—when one of his contemporaries or even heroes passes away, said, “Right from the beginning, he was there with the truth of things in his voice. His music had an influence on me, whether I knew it or not. He was one of the very few singers who sang without a mask. This is a sad day.”
So Dylan, fittingly, held Sinatra in high regard. But it’s a disservice to Shadows in the Night to think of it as simply a “Sinatra covers” album. Many of the songs had long histories before either man ever got their hands on them. In fact, when I got an early preview of the album, before Shadows in the Night became known to everyone as Dylan’s “Sinatra” album, I didn’t hear it that way at all. The performances and arrangements are so impactful, so intimate, that I was so captivated that I didn’t hear an ounce of Sinatra in these songs. I bet you won’t either. You might not hear Bob Dylan, either. At least not Bob Dylan as you probably think of him. Instead, you will hear the songs.
"I don't see myself as covering these songs in any way," Dylan said in a statement about the album. "What me and my band are doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day."
In other words, Dylan is dusting off songs he loves, that like many of us he probably knows via Frank Sinatra, and he is imbuing them with his own powerful emotional connection.
Dylan is clearly committed to the material. His vocals are astonishingly evocative, even provocative. And the simple, sparse arrangements performed by his regular touring band, with occasional, spare horn arrangements by D.J. Harper, are as sympathetic as they come. Best of all, the recordings, helmed by Al Schmitt at the legendary Capital Studios in Los Angeles, where Sinatra himself recorded many of his most famous songs, are gorgeous.
So perhaps the best thing to do is to grab Shadows in the Night on vinyl, wait till it’s evening (because that’s how Frank would want it), and sit back and revel in not only Dylan’s “best record since Time Out of Mind,” but in one of the best records of his career. Really.